Saturday, September 24, 2005

A Cook's Tour

There are many things to dislike about Los Angeles, but since that isn’t the topic for the day, I’ll just pick three: it can take you forty minutes to drive five miles; the air has a chewy quality three months of the year (which might have something to do with those people idling while trying to drive five miles); and virtually no one in this entire city understands the concept of “dressing your age”. Really, people, it’s not hard. If you wore it the first time, you are too old for it the second time it comes around, and if you have a weekend house, teenage kids and a three-picture deal with Paramount, could you possibly stop wearing Converse high-tops, baggy shorts and a wife-beater?

But, I digress.

One of the benefits to living in Los Angeles is The Cook’s Library, an entire bookstore dedicated to cookbooks. Stop to consider the idea that no matter how obscure your culinary interest, they have a book for you. More likely, they have three. For example, I walked in to the store today and without moving my head more than 45 degrees, I saw Kosher Cajun on one display table and Matzoh Ball Gumbo on a shelf. The door hadn’t closed behind me and my mind was a-whirl in possibilities. Jewish cooking can be delicious and heavy; Southern cooking can be delicious and heavy. Combine these two cuisines and you can create a meal which collapses gravity. I had to peer through these books!

I settled on a comfy chair and was lost in the blending of the tribes. Considering how one cuisine venerates the pig and the other cuisine frequently forbids it, the recipes were far less ungainly than you might think. But my time was short, and the stacks were tall.

I moved on.

There is virtually no cuisine in the world, from Afghan to Uzbek, which is not represented on these shelves. I say virtually because when I asked the owner, Tim Fischer, if they had a cookbook for Ethiopian cuisine, he frowned slightly and said “We had one. It was written by a church in North Carolina, but we haven’t had it in a while”.

And that, my friends, is the genius of The Cook’s Library. As many questions as are answered (What should I do with the salted cod my great-aunt sent me?), more questions arise (Is there an Ethiopian religious enclave in North Carolina and if so, why? Did they like the climate or was it that they wanted to try some of that Jewish/Southern fusion cuisine? Or perhaps this church did missionary work in Ethiopia and brought back recipes? Did they feel badly the Ethiopians didn’t have their own cookbook?).

And then there are the Junior League contributions. In case you are not from the United States, let me explain this organization quickly. In their own words, they are “…an organization of women committed to promoting voluntarism, developing the potential of women, and improving communities through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers”. They do very good work and a lot of worthwhile causes benefit from these trained and able women. But, how shall I say this, they are not the most diverse lot. In the spirit of full disclosure I must admit that I belonged to the Junior League of Los Angeles. I think I was the most exotic person they had ever seen, what with my not having belonged to a sorority and all.

Most of the major Junior League chapters publish a cookbook for fundraising, and these are compelling reading as both a dietary and cultural bellwether. For example, you cannot believe how many recipes involve mayonnaise or rum. The Cook’s Library has an entire row of Junior League cookbooks and I love to wander through them, imagining a world where I am required to create appetizers to eat gracefully with gin and tonics while Consort and his old fraternity buddies finish up the back nine. These appetizers would include mayonnaise, mild cheddar and pimentos. So imagine my delight unearthing a Junior League edition called Adventures in Taste from around the World. I frowned in confusion; Junior Leaguers do not return home from back-packing through Nepal and try to recreate the wonderful street cuisine they enjoyed in Katmandu. I paged through the book, landed on the chapter entitled “Casseroles”, and breathed a sigh of sheer delight. Clearly, we were in for some jarring collisions of world cuisine and Junior League sensibility.

I was not disappointed. “Cuban Dinner” called for a whole clove of garlic - serve it if you dare! The “Italian Ground Beef Casserole” requires cottage cheese, an ingredient which would make any true Italian chef start clawing out his eyes. Obviously, cottage cheese is a Junior League substitute for ricotta – itself a cheese with almost no noticeable flavor, but possibly too much zest for the more…delicate palate. Any casserole with the word “Asian” in the title demanded soy sauce and sometimes pineapple. In short, this volume was a breath of 1961 and a perfectly giddy mix of irony and nostalgia.

But, you say, what about social lubrication? The Cook’s Library has two rows of cocktail books and four rows of wine books. There aren’t any books specifically geared to hangover cures, but the long row of “Frying” cookbooks could be a reasonable stand-in. For those who prefer a slightly naughtier form of relaxation, there are several marijuana cookbooks. I saw them, but I didn’t inhale, which is good, because I think I saw How to Eat Like A Republican looking at me oddly.

Deviled eggs or Devil’s Food Cake, The Whole Pig or The Virtuous Vegan ,The Joy of Cooking or The ‘I Hate to Cook Book’, --it’s just a hugely fun store. Places like this make living in Los Angeles and seeing grandmothers in crop tops more bearable.

The Cook’s Library can be found at 8373 West Third Street, LA 90048, (323) 655-3141, and their email is cookbooks@aol.com.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Beckster said...

Oh, I want to go to this store! I am a cookbook junkie. There is a store in London called Books for Cooks where they not only sell all the cook books but they also have a small kitchen where they make items from the various books.
Junior League books are some of my favorites. When ever I travel, I pick up a cookbook as a souvenir. In the US that usually means a Junior League book. My favorite is a reprint from Vermont 1935 where all the recipes where hand written and mimeographed. It is a social history snapshot of the depression era in New England, and the food is great too!

10:42 PM  
Blogger Mel said...

I'm coming to live with you. I'll stay in your purse so you can take me wherever you go.

(One of my prized cookbooks is "Some Like it South!" from the Junior League in Pensacola. Someone gave it to me for a wedding gift. I also like church cookbooks put out by the women's groups.)

10:00 PM  
Blogger Quinn Cummings said...

Mel, you can certainly live in there, if you want, but your bedding options are going to be paper clips, used Kleenex and a dried-out mascara wand.

10:03 PM  
Blogger Eryngium said...

My favorite recipe comes from a garage sale find: a cookbook published for a Baptist church in Roswell, NM. It was only fifty cents, and I didn't even have to get probed!

9:46 AM  
Blogger Juliane said...

Your comments on Jewish/Southern fusion has me in stitches! You have probably seen this already, but just in case: http://www.candyboots.com/wwcards.html

Don't look at them all in one sitting. Savor the insanity...mmmm...

7:28 PM  
Blogger Quinn Cummings said...

Juliane, not since Liliek have I reveled in food-foulness with such joy. Thanks for the suggestion.

7:44 PM  

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